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NWSL Games Canceled After Paul Riley Sexual Misconduct Allegations

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The National Women’s Soccer League announced the cancellation of this weekend’s matches Friday.

“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said. “I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling. Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual isn’t our concern right now.”

The move comes after The Athletic’s Meg Linehan and Katie Strang detailed sexual misconduct allegations against former North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley.

Two of Riley’s former players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, told The Athletic he coerced them into having sex with them. While Farrelly and Shim were teammates, Riley also allegedly asked them to kiss and said he wouldn’t make the team run extra drills in practice if they did.

In general, they said Riley went out of his way to establish a relationship that crossed the line between coach and player. He would allegedly invite the players to his apartment or hotel room for informal film sessions. During one such incident, Shim entered his room to find Riley wearing only a pair of underwear.

Farrelly said the situation was so harmful that she “couldn’t function under him” and “couldn’t function to play soccer anymore.”

Riley responded to The Athletic by saying, “I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players.” He also denied holding film sessions in his hotel room.

The handling of the allegations by the NWSL and its member clubs was another focus of the report.

According to Linehan and Strang, Shim filed a complaint with the Portland Thorns following the 2015 season. While Riley left Portland shortly thereafter for violating team policy, he was next hired by the Western New York Flash. Thorns owner Merritt Paulson said he had forwarded the circumstances of Riley’s departure to league officials.

Farrelly and Shim reached out to the league about conducting a new investigation into Riley. Baird, who took over as commissioner in February 2020, responded to say the complaint from 2015 was “investigated to conclusion.”

In addressing the situation, Baird said Thursday she “was shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic this morning.”

However, Orlando Pride star Alex Morgan shared a copy of the email correspondence between Farrelly and Baird, raising questions as to the extent of the league office’s knowledge of the allegations about Riley’s behavior:

Alex Morgan @alexmorgan13

(3/3) <a href=”https://t.co/BkGlHsPiV4″>pic.twitter.com/BkGlHsPiV4</a>

Morgan was one of many current and former women’s soccer stars who weighed in:

Julie Foudy @JulieFoudy

A league for women. Yet <a href=”https://twitter.com/NWSL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@NWSL</a> fails to protect women. And then tries to continue to sweep it under the rug. Support these players. Believe these players. Protect these players. Transparency, accountability NOW.

Mia Hamm @MiaHamm

This is horrifying and disturbing! “leadership” has failed these brave women and ignored their voices. For us to grow as a league and heal as a community , we need to listen to the players. I stand with them. <a href=”https://t.co/IzDdePIXlA”>https://t.co/IzDdePIXlA</a>

Meghan Klingenberg @meghankling

We Deserve Better (Part II) <a href=”https://t.co/c1MIAnrOde”>pic.twitter.com/c1MIAnrOde</a>

Megan Rapinoe @mPinoe

Never once during this whole time was the right person protected. Not Mana, not Sinead, not us not the players not the little girls who will become us not the big girls who already are us not any of US. This statement is beyond disrespectful. <a href=”https://t.co/HDPkFhFEc6″>https://t.co/HDPkFhFEc6</a>

Becky Sauerbrunn @beckysauerbrunn

<a href=”https://t.co/XrV2EQA0oL”>https://t.co/XrV2EQA0oL</a> <a href=”https://t.co/PjMt8l20ZC”>pic.twitter.com/PjMt8l20ZC</a>

The Athletic’s report didn’t represent an isolated incident, either.

The NWSL announced Tuesday that Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke had been fired with cause and that “the Spirit and its ownership have failed to act in the best interests of the League.”

The Washington Post‘s Molly Hensley-Clancy filed an in-depth report Aug. 11 detailing allegations that Burke was verbally abusive toward his players and made racially insensitive comments. In a separate report, Hensley-Clancy wrote about a wider “toxic work culture for female employees” within the Spirit organization.

Hensley-Clancy also reported Friday that former OL Reign manager Farid Benstiti resigned in July after making “inappropriate comments” in front of the team. 

During a 2019 interview, Thorns star Lindsey Horan referenced her time at Paris Saint-Germain when Benstiti was the manager and said he ridiculed her for her weight and was “very brutal with me.” Horan added it was “probably” the lowest point of her playing career.

OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore addressed Benstiti’s resignation Friday.

“The decision to hire Farid was mine and I accept responsibility for that and I think in hindsight I got it wrong,” he said. “How people wish to hold me accountable, I don’t think it’s for me to decide.”

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